Standing Up for Human Rights

Bill Schulz reflects on the need to recover the American tradition of leading the world toward ending human rights abuses.

The United Nations unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 59 years ago today. Since then the Declaration has been elevated to the position of “customary international law,” and many of its principles—such as the right to equal protection before the law or the right not to be tortured—have been incorporated into dozens of national constitutions. Courts have referenced the principles of the Declaration in their rulings. Citizens have relied upon them for protection. Every country that joins the United Nations implicitly agrees to abide by them.

But in practice of course they often do not. That is why thousands of people are being slaughtered and displaced in Darfur, Sudan, and why the United States’ treatment of detainees has earned it such international opprobrium. But the principles themselves are clear and that in itself is important.

Today we make note of our most fundamental American values at a time when we often despair of the United States’ own human rights record.

They are also principles for which the United States can claim considerable responsibility. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the commission that drafted the Declaration, and the United States championed its adoption in 1948.

That may help remind us that the best of the American tradition is not one of hubris, contempt for others’ opinions, and military overreaching. The best of the American tradition is manifest in Roger Williams, who thought the early colonists ought to pay the Indians for the land they appropriated, and in Judge Samuel Sewall, who publicly apologized for his role in the Salem witchcraft trials. It is manifest in the Bill of Rights. It is manifest in William Lloyd Garrison and Lydia Maria Child’s demands to end slavery and in Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s outrage when the World Anti-Slavery Society in London denied delegate status to women.

The best of the American tradition is manifest in Sojourner Truth leading slaves to freedom and Lincoln offering his adversaries “malice toward none and charity for all.” It is manifest in a nation opening its arms to immigrants and a president dreaming in 1918 of a worldwide consortium of nations dedicated to the preservation of peace. It is manifest in the defeat of fascism, in Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, in Truman’s support for the United Nations, and in the civil rights movement.

Today we celebrate Eleanor Roosevelt’s vision of the Universal Declaration. And we also make note of our most fundamental American values at a time when we often despair of the United States’ own human rights record.

Those fundamental values have been under severe attack the past few years. We have repudiated a host of basic human rights and the internationalism that accompanies them, and the consequences have been severe. We have sullied our good name, dulled our capacity to provide leadership. Our ability to call other nations to account has diminished; the lives of our troops have been put in jeopardy by our trashing of the Geneva Conventions. We have sent mixed messages to allies and adversaries alike about our commitment to democracy, handed Al Qaeda a ready tool for recruitment, and forced weaker nations to consider coercive means to defend themselves against our unbridled power.

Perhaps most tragically, the American people have received a message that fear sanctions indulgence of our basest passions and that the ensemble of rights we have always taught our children was a proud characteristic of this nation is in fact a frail and flimsy thing that can be dismantled in a heartbeat. So damaging have all these consequences been that they may, paradoxically, be reawakening a commitment to global cooperation among the American people.

Such a reawakening cannot come a moment too soon as CAP’s reports and essays highlight. Darfur continues to broil for want of global will. Eastern Congo threatens to explode. Climate change may bring with it human rights crises on a massive scale rarely contemplated before. Torture remains widespread. Reproductive rights, labor rights and the rights of GLBT people remain in jeopardy. Fundamental American principles like habeas corpus seem up for grabs.

Time, then, to take a day to reflect on what we really care about. Striking textile workers at the Lawrence, Mass., mills in 1912 demanded both bread and roses, both the wherewithal to remain alive and the opportunity to live lives of dignity. In the words of the famous song,

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand workshops gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

Human rights promise both life and dignity. That’s all. It hardly seems too much to ask.


The following are a sampling of CAP’s work on human rights issues in the past year.


Habeas Corpus

GLBT Rights/protection



Climate Change and Human Migration and Displacement

Labor Rights

Reproductive Rights

America’s Moral Authority


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